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Monday, March 29, 2010

Art Surrounds You: An Interview with Kota Ezawa

Kota, 2006
Color Aquatint Etching
19.5 x 23 inches
Edition of 35
Courtesy of the artist and Paulson Bott Press

Recently I interviewed Kota Ezawa at Paulson Bott Press about some new prints that he was making. (You can read that interview at www.paulsonbottpress.com) Our conversation went off in several directions, including the animated videos and light boxes he is known for, as well as his recent project of disassembling and reordering Eisenstein’s montage step sequence in Battleship Potemkin. This is an edited version of the conversation.

Interviewer: Do you still see video and animations as your primary modes of expression?

Kota Ezawa: It is changing because of what's happening to video. I would say that animation is still the backbone of a lot of these projects. But the Battleship Potemkin project is not even turning into a film anymore, it's more an image sequence. Of course, an image sequence is also animation. There is a static quality to the prints that is not so true in the light boxes, because the light boxes are illuminated.

Interviewer: You are playing with a sense of time and with a familiar image. Familiar to you personally, or familiar to the culture, like the Polaroid, the moon, the film Potemkin. I think you are playing with time in a way.

Kota Ezawa: But I am also trying to get rid of that. There are the 19th century photographs that I remade. That was about updating them, bringing them to the present. But with the Potemkin, it’s not really doing that. I am using an old technique on old material. I like to mix it up.

Staircase, 2009
Ink on paper
Frame 11 x 13.25 inches/image 6.75 x 9 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Staircase, 2009
Ink on paper
Frame 11 x 13.25 inches/image 6.75 x 9 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Interviewer: Is it about some kind of dialog?

Kota Ezawa: Yes.

Interviewer: Let's talk about the imagery itself and selecting images that may not be necessarily photographs. I am interested in your borrowing from the IKEA catalog. That is not an iconic photograph in the sense of so much of your previous work.

Kota Ezawa: The IKEA catalog was a predecessor to the Potemkin project. I wanted to work with each page, but that idea died because the catalog was too thick. It has something like 372 pages.

Since I redraw each image by hand, that wasn’t doable. With IKEA, I don’t have the same relationship as with many of these images. I don’t hate IKEA, so it's not an Adbusters-type project. But I don’t love IKEA, so it's also not a glorifying project. I have a lot of these mixed relationships. But IKEA played a role in my recent life. I bought an apartment in Berlin two years ago, so I went to IKEA to get a few things to get started, to get the bare minimum for the apartment. And then just two months later, I moved from my apartment in North Beach to a place near Polk Street, and again I started with nothing, without furniture.

I did two very extensive IKEA shopping trips within a few months for two apartments, and I became very conscious of the phenomenon. At the same time, I read a book by the French theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the System of Object. And it's a fascinating book he wrote in the 1960s. He talks about how objects of desire disappear in the palm of your hand. That is what’s happening now, but he predicted it in the 1960s. He said that furniture doesn’t really exist anymore. In the 19th century, when you bought a dresser, it was a sculptural object. In the 1960s, he said, you don’t try to buy furniture, you try to find the solution to one of your life problems. The solution has to be 70 inches long and 35 inches tall, and two boxes of books have to fit into it. You go to IKEA to solve some problem of your life. I find it very philosophical to hang out at IKEA.

$150, 2008
Duratrans transparency & lightbox
40 x 30 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

$2.99/ea (NEW!), 2007
Duratrans transparency & lightbox
36 x 60 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Interviewer: What is some other imagery that you've been drawn to recently, that you've been working with?

Kota Ezawa: This last year was really taken up by the Potemkin project. Just before the presidential election, the New School had a big exhibition called Ours: Democracy in the Age of Branding. They showed some of the IKEA light boxes, but they also wanted me to do a new piece for the exhibition. I made a wood sculpture, which I called Hand Vote. It shows a crowd of people raising their hands.

Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Interivewer: Does it refer to a specific election?

Kota Ezawa: No. It's just an image of people raising their hands, which to me is fundamental to the idea of democracy. People either raise their hand or they leave it down. It's how it works.

Interviewer: Is this related to other recent work?

Kota Ezawa: Yes, I think it is related to the Flowers print. It is a basic image without strong reference to a specific event. I also did a commission for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. They asked a number of artists to do images based on their slogan, "Art surrounds you. Art surrounds us." I made a drawing of a studded choker. It's punk rock paraphernalia. I was very happy that they made a big billboard panel and put it on the outside of the museum, with this image of a studded choker, and it says, "Art surrounds you."

Color Aquatint Etching
20 ½” x 27
Edition of 50
Courtesy the artist and Paulson Bott Press

Art Surrounds You
Courtesy of the artist

Interviewer: What kind of drawing was it?

Kota Ezawa: It was a digital drawing. It’s like Flowers or Hand Vote.

Interviewer: There is a sense of erasure in your work, or a leveling. You are erasing a line between the iconic and the personal, and with the photographs, between the amateur and the professional. Could you expand a little on this concept of erasing? Are you erasing in new ways?

Kota Ezawa: I wouldn’t call it erasing, more like translating or simulating. I don’t think my images are only just simplifications of the images. I hope that the images also gain something by the process.

Interviewer: By the reduction?

Kota Ezawa: Yes.

Interviewer: That they become something else?

Kota Ezawa: It’s a reduction, but in some ways it's also not a reduction. For example, look at the film frame of Last Year in Marienbad. I had a VHS tape, and I digitized it, and then I took one frame, and what's visible in one frame of VHS is very little. And so, a lot of what you see there is invented.

Interviewer: So, you're actually adding?

Kota Ezawa: Yes. I get rid of shadows or nuances that the original images have, but I also add something. For example, I add sharpness and dimension and color and depth to some of these images. And I think they become more impactful through the process.

Interviewer: Through their reinterpretation?

Kota Ezawa: Yes.

LYAM 3D, 2008
DVD, Color, Silent
4 minutes

Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Interviewer: What are you going to work on next?

Kota Ezawa: I want to do a wood sculpture similar to the Hand Vote sculpture, based on this image of flowers. I like putting images through the mill and exhausting them. This image exists as a light box, and now as a print, and then hopefully as a wood sculpture. I'm interested in doing an animation project that deals with my hometown, the town where I grew up. I was born in Cologne, but I grew up in the small town in the German countryside called Mössingen.

Interviewer: Is it near Cologne?

Kota Ezawa: No, it's near Stuttgart, near the Black Forest in southwest Germany. And it's a town Germans have never heard of. But it's a remarkable place. In 1933, the day after Hitler came to power, there was a worker uprising against the Nazi regime in this town, and it was tragic because it didn’t change the course of history. It was a naïve uprising because they thought all of the workers would go on a strike and protest the new government. All of the workers left their factories and made banners, which said, for example, "Hitler die." They thought this was happening all over Germany, but it was just happening in this little town. And then police from all the surrounding towns came in and squashed it. About a hundred workers were arrested, and some fled. Some went as far as Spain to join the civil war there. It is the kind of story that's not being told, because this town is now West Germany. So, after World War II, when there was a first opportunity to commemorate these events, it wasn’t a popular story, because the people driving this uprising were members of the communist party. And the communist party belonged to the east block. So, everybody was like, "Let's not talk about this." It wasn’t until the 1980s that they were texts written about this worker uprising.

Interviewer: There are a lot of twists with an event like that, a lot of ways to examine it. It’s taking some of your insight into imagery and applying it directly to a specific social phenomena. Sometimes with your imagery, I don’t know if you are commenting on, say, the film Potemkin, or the story of this film. Or whether you are commenting on the instantaneous nature of the Polaroid camera or the camera as a corporate symbol.

A lot of your work has been more about how we perceive subjects or events. But here the subject becomes more important.

Kota Ezawa: It does. But then on the other hand, of course, I'm also looking at how this can be done formally. And I'm not sure, because it hasn’t even really started yet, but I have a hope that it will somehow connect to this ink exploration that started with the Battleship Potemkin.

There was a film by the American cartoonist, Winsor McCay. He made this cartoon, Little Nemo. It was popular in the early 20th century. And he also made an animated film called The Sinking of Lusitania, the sinking of a passenger ship that's hit by a torpedo.

It is a really remarkable film, and to me that’s the model for this project. To make a documentary film, yet in the absence of real footage, to do it as an ink animation.

Interviewer: Will Little Nemo be the basis for your film?

Kota Ezawa: No, I have an archive of photos of the Mössingen uprising that I am going to use.

Interviewer: Are you relying on your memory as well as the historic material?

Kota Ezawa: I have a book that I'm working with right now, but I haven’t decided. There was one film about it that was made for a local TV station, but the filmmaker doesn’t even have a copy anymore.

Interviewer: How do the Germans respond to your work?

Kota Ezawa: I just had my first exhibition in Germany this year in a gallery in Frankfurt. It was not a huge success, but success is a strange word. But the fact that it was not a huge sales success could be because it is a very depressing economic time. I live here in the US most of the time, and people here are much more exposed to what I do. I'm just starting the conversation in Germany. But then I wonder , if Germans have access to my work like people here do, what will their response be? You alluded to that when we spoke about creating surfaces. I think America is a country that's obsessed with surface in a good way and in a bad way. And I'm somewhat obsessed with surfaces. And the Germans…well, yesterday I did a conversation with Rudolf Frieling, the curator of media arts for SFMOMA, and he is clearly not interested in surface. He's interested in the why and the reasonings. That's very German.

Interviewer: But your work isn’t about making a pretty picture.

Kota Ezawa: Yes, but that's why the flowers are so important. I really want to make beautiful things.

Interviewer: But there's also quite a lot of reasoning and philosophy and thinking in your work. I mean, in the whole analysis of photography and what is reality and how it gets translated. I would think that would appeal to the Germans.

Kota Ezawa: I don’t try to invade any kind of cultural context. It's surprising. I've had some recent interaction with Spanish museums, and I have never even been to Spain. I don’t know why my work has some kind of resonance there, but it does. It remains to be seen what will happen.

For more information about Kota and his work please see:

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